The Laws of Nature

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nonconformity

I just finished reading "The Shape of Content" by Ben Shahn (Harvard University Press, 1985) and am very impressed with his keen analysis of the many aspects of art and being an artist. I heartily recommend this book and plan to write about it in future blogs. Today, I'm interested in Shahn's comments about the artist as a nonconformist. He states that "to create anything of worth in any field, it requires nonconformity - or want of satisfaction with things the way they are." He cites many examples of this - for instance, the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Charta, Martin Luther's theses, etc. wouldn't exist if nonconformists hadn't brought them to life. Shahn identifies the major motivators for conformity in the arts as: "1) a large number of artists adopt the view of one artist who is deemed outstanding , 2) artists who cater to the popular market, 3) trends and yearnings of artists to be in the forefront of things, and 4) by doctrine and tribunal." Aren't we all encouraged to conform by jurors of major exhibitions, gallery owners, museum curators, and art critics? They are the gatekeepers at the transition point between art stored in our studios and art displayed for public consumption. Thank goodness for the world wide web! At least we can bypass the gatekeepers at one level. Finally, Shahn writes that "conformity is the retreat from controversiality." Now, there's something to think about!

5 comments:

Margaret Ryall said...

There's lots to contemplate in this post. Thanks for bringing this write to our attention. I think it is so important to move beyond the "how to" of art and question the larger concepts that frame our practice.

-Don said...

Mr. Shahn has a lot of great mind-boggling stuff to say that really causes a person to think. It's all so deep it makes my head hurt. I've never really known how to conform very well, which has caused some spastic decisions over the years in my personal life. When it comes to my art I realize that what I'm doing right now is exactly what I want to do. Of course I want people to like it, but at the same time I'm not doing it for any reason than that I like it. I will admit that I've learned to use a filter to temper the rowdy guy that's just below the surface, but that's not to conform to anyone's standard, it's just to keep most of the mud off my face...

And, you're right, thank goodness for the worldwide web. I have found several of the "gatekeepers" to be biased, bigoted and basically full of... oops, I had to activate my filter...

Kathy said...

Oh, Don... you just made me laugh!!

And, thanks so much Margaret for responding. I especially like your last sentence. Well stated!

Sheila said...

This post really resonates with me Katharine! I am so glad you stopped by so I can follow the breadcrumbs back to this jewel of a blog.

So much to think about. I have noticed that when I try to conform to the current popular style I am unhappy and feel like I've sold out. I may get more positive feedback but I feel empty and unfulfilled. So do I continue to paint for a few passages of praise on a webpage or paint what I want and receive no feedback? Thanks again for the great post.

PS...love your eggshell series.

Kathy said...

Hi Sheila,
Thank you for stopping by and commenting. You ask a great question for which there can be many answers. My answer is to ask you "As an artist, what sort of legacy in art do you wish to leave behind?" You can create original work that is personal and on the side create more popular stuff if you need the income. I usually work in two or three different series at a time because I've found that it takes years for any of my series to catch on. For instance, I started painting the cracked egg shells five years ago and they've been selling only for the past two. So, multiple series help me generate income while one series is still trying to get off the ground. However, I don't paint for trends and what is popular. I guess everyone has a different approach, and perhaps some of my readers can add their ideas.